How Meditation Changes the Structure of Your Brain

Did you know that meditating on a regular basis can actually change the structure of your brain? In case you were wondering why meditation can have so many benefits, including stress reduction, the results from a study conducted by Harvard affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has some answers for you. In 2011, the team of researchers published an article in the journal: Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging where they shared their results of the first study to every illustrate that meditation does in fact produce structural changes to the brain over time. 

Sara Lazar, a senior author of the study and an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical school, shared: "This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing."

The changes that Sara Lazar is referring to have to do with grey matter in the brain. It has been shown in other clinical studies that the amount of grey matter in different parts of the brain correlates to, for example, how intelligent a person is. In the study on meditation and the brain led by MGH, researchers discovered that meditating on a consistent basis for 8 weeks increased the grey matter in the hippocampus and decreased the grey matter in the amygdala in the brains of the participants. Increased grey matter in the hippocampus leads to improved learning and memory, as well as an increase in self-awareness, compassion and introspection. The amygdala, on the other hand, is correlated with stress and anxiety. So less grey matter in that area means a person will experience less stress and anxiety. 

Participants in the study participated in an 8-week Mindfullness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, where they participated in at least 27 minutes a day of mindfulness exercises. Magnetic Resonance (MR) images were taken of participants brains before and after the MBSR program. MR images were also taken of a control group who did not participate in the MBSR study, and no significant structural changes took place in their brains compared to those who participated in the 8-week MBSR program.

As Britta Holzel so aptly sums up the study's findings: "It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

Written by: Rajmani Sinclair, April 26, 2016